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‘The Unknown Berenice Abbott’

In 1929, Berenice Abbott returned to New York a young, successful photographer with ambitious ideas. She’d lived in Europe for eight years but found New York undeniable, dynamic, ripe for exploration.

She rented a studio and planned to support herself as a portrait photographer – and then the stock market crashed, sending the economy into a downward spiral.

But Abbott, a careful, technical photographer, continued to work. She sold photographs when she could and made images she knew she might never print.

“She didn’t intend for this work to be forgotten; it just happened to turn out that way,” wrote Hank O’Neal, an editor of the new five-volume set, “The Unknown Berenice Abbott.”

Editors O’Neal and Ronald Kurtz worked with publisher Gerhard Steidl to curate and share works by Abbott that “time and economics” rendered largely unknown, they say.

The first volume of “The Unknown Berenice Abbott” reveals New York from 1929 to 1931. The second, “The American Scene,” details her travels around the United States, often in rural areas. The third, “Deep Woods” delves into logging activity, while the fourth, “Greenwich Village,” shows the neighborhood evolving from 1935 to 1950. The final book, “U.S. 1, USA,” features black-and-white and color images Abbott shot along the old roadway, before interstates dominated.

They’re not her famous portraits, architectural images or photographs illustrating the laws of physics; many have never before been published. But they’re images she scraped by in order to make, always applying her technical skill and eye for composition.

“She saved her money and bought her supplies and did what she had to do to do it on her own,” said O’Neal, who first met Abbott in the 1970s and continued to work with her until her death in 1991 at age 93.

That seemed to be Abbott’s way – always vigorous, always filled with ideas.

She attended just a semester of college in her home state of Ohio before running off to New York in 1918. She survived a bout with influenza, to the surprise of hospital workers who left her for dead amid the pandemic.

Despite chronic lung problems that followed, she was a chain smoker “who never needed a match.” She could make the 10-hour drive from New York to her home in Maine in eight hours, her editors said, “and stop for a six-pack and a bag of candy corn along the way."

When she couldn’t sell her work, she fund-raised to allow her to make more. When she couldn’t find cameras or developers that achieved what she wanted, she designed and built her own.

“She was a woman working largely in a man’s world. She didn’t get all the jobs that someone who was a guy, perhaps a lesser talent, would have gotten,” O’Neal said. “She was somewhat outspoken about what she believed. She didn’t like pictorialists. She was not a newspaper photographer – she didn’t look for something that was exciting. She went against the grain a lot of the time. She wanted pictures to say something.”

But her legacy has been limited, Kurtz said, by the photographs that had gone unseen.

“I think that (“The Unknown Berenice Abbott’) will show that she was probably one of the most versatile photographers of all time,” said Kurtz, who began collecting Abbott’s work in the 1960s. “A lot of people have taken portraits, and a lot of people have taken good architectural things – the kinds of things that she did – but nobody has done all of these things.

“The idea that she has done all of these things and done them well is incredible. It would be awful hard to truly understand what a remarkable figure she was without all of these things.”

- Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN